READ : 1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Does Jesus’ resurrection make a difference for your faith? It certainly did for the apostle Paul’s!
What an astonishing story Easter is! A group of women go out early one morning to the tomb of their friend Jesus to finish preparing his body for burial and they find that he’s gone. People have been trying ever since to explain where. The earliest attempt is recorded already in the New Testament. The authorities in Jerusalem said that Jesus’ body had been stolen by his disciples while the guards at his tomb were asleep. Other explanations have followed through the centuries. The women were confused and went to the wrong tomb. Jesus had only fainted on the cross. Later he revived and got out on his own. The disciples made up the whole story many years later. And so on and so on.
What Difference Does It Make?
Today there’s another more sophisticated interpretation. Many skeptics argue that the story of Jesus’ resurrection is not an event but an idea expressed in story form. The resurrection story is the way the New Testament writers chose to express a religious experience they had. Jesus’ disciples were so inspired by his life, this view says, they felt his presence so strongly, that they had a vision of him after his death and his spirit inspired them to go out and live like he did. There’s no question of Jesus literally coming back to life or physically rising from the dead, but he does live on after a fashion in his followers’ faith.
That’s a nice idea. It solves a great many problems for modern people who cannot accept the possibility of miracles. It allows them to use Christian language, even sometimes to occupy Christian pulpits without having to accept Christian truth. They can hold to some of Jesus’ teaching without having to bow before his lordship.
But what about those of us who are convinced Christians? What if Jesus’ resurrection is not a real event? What if his body stayed in the tomb? Would that make a difference for our faith? It would for Paul. In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle addresses the views of those who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, people who believed in the old Greek idea that the soul lived on after death but the body perished completely. Paul responds to these people by following out their line of thinking to its necessary conclusion. If there is no resurrection, then Jesus cannot have been raised. And if Jesus is not raised, what then? The apostle tries to imagine what our faith would be like if Christ really is not risen from the dead. What difference would that make?
Suppose the Opposite
Paul makes his case for the importance of Jesus’ resurrection by supposing the opposite. “What if Christ has not been raised? What then?” Then a whole series of things that would have devastating consequences for Christian faith would be true. The apostle lists six of them in 1 Corinthians 15:
- “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless” (v. 14). All of the apostles, including Paul, consistently proclaimed Jesus’ death and resurrection as the very heart of the gospel message. In the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul reminded his hearers of the content of the gospel, that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures” (vv. 3,4). But if Christ was not raised from the dead, then the message that Paul and all the other apostles proclaimed throughout the ancient world was false. Their preaching was “useless,” literally “vain” or “empty.” It was without substance. It had form but no content, like a nut that has a shell but no meat inside. It’s not as though if the resurrection is false we can still find some helpful and beneficial things in Christian teaching. What the apostles proclaimed as the heart of Christianity was not ideas about God or advice for good living, but the news about certain things done by Jesus Christ, and if their report of those things is wrong, then nothing else they said is of any use at all.
- “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is useless,” says Paul, and so is your faith” (v. 14). “If Christ has not been raised,” he adds a little later, “your faith is futile” (v. 17). The faith of the Corinthians and of every other Christian believer is as empty and useless as the apostolic message if it is all based on a falsehood. The word Paul uses in verse 17 translated “futile” refers to something that has appearance without reality, like a mirage in the desert that promises water and comfort and rest but doesn’t deliver them because it isn’t real. That’s exactly what our faith would be if Jesus is still dead. It promises salvation, forgiveness, peace, joy, and eternal life. But it’s all just an illusion, as empty and futile as all other human dreams, if death is the end. The importance of this point cannot be overemphasized. Faith by itself is of no use at all. Faith is only as good as the object in which it is placed. Faith in an untrue Christian message is just as useless as faith placed in blocks of wood or stone. No one is saved by believing. One can only be saved by believing in a Christ who is alive and who has conquered death and sin.
- If Christ has not been raised, then the apostles have misrepresented God. “We are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead” (v. 15). Paul and the other apostles are false witnesses if the message they’ve preached is not true.
It’s not just that they’re mistaken about God. All of these men who testified so clearly to the resurrection are now found out to be liars. It is not a case of men whose advice was found to be less good than they had supposed. Rather, it is a case like that of a scientist whose claims of a great new discovery were based upon phony research. We can’t believe anything these witnesses have said, including everything they’ve said about God. We cannot trust Jesus as the supreme revelation of God because everything we know about him is based on one or another apostle’s testimony, and if Jesus isn’t God, if he doesn’t show us God’s character and love and mercy and goodness, then God remains a complete enigma. We just don’t know what he’s like, or even if he exists at all.
- “If Christ has not been raised,” you are still in your sins” (v. 17). Christian faith is based on the fact that Christ died for our sins. He was the unique sin bearer, who took our place, died our death, and so paid sin’s just penalty. When we put our trust in Christ, we share in the benefits of Christ’s death as our substitute. But it is Jesus’ resurrection that confirms the special meaning of his death. Without Jesus’ resurrection, there’s no reason to believe his death was any different from anyone else’s. Then he died on the cross under God’s curse. It is only the resurrection which shows that the curse has been lifted and reversed. Christ died for our sins but was raised for our justification, says the Bible (Rom. 4:25). Without the resurrection, we are not justified, but are still in our sins, still under their power (for we have no hope of deliverance from them), still tainted by their guilt (for there’s no way of forgiveness.)
- If Christ has not been raised, we have no hope for the future. “Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost” (v. 18). What made the ancient world sit up and take notice of the first Christians was their unshakable faith. And nothing had greater impact than the way those first Christians faced death. The world into which the Christian gospel was introduced was filled with hopelessness and despair. But suddenly there came into this world a message that gave ordinary people everywhere not just the stoic courage to endure death but a triumphant hope that overcame it.
That message was that Jesus Christ had won the victory over death when he arose from the grave. If that isn’t true, says Paul, then all those who have fallen asleep in Christ, that is, who died with their faith and hope placed firmly in him, are lost. The word Paul uses means they have perished. They are no more. They were completely destroyed and most cruelly, they perished at the very moment they thought they were falling asleep in Jesus. All the millions who have calmly trusted in God in their last hour, all the martyrs who went smiling to their death rather than deny the Lord Jesus, all these were deceived, and now they are all gone. Not gone anywhere, just gone.
And, of course, this means that you and I have no hope for the future either. If Jesus Christ has not been raised from the dead, then nothing and no one can overcome death. Then we are all doomed to perish ourselves and all our hopes beyond this world are an empty mockery. Then the wise and the noble and the good people are wrong and the selfish and the sensual are right.
- If Christ has not been raised, then Christians are of all people most to be pitied. “If for this life only we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all” (v. 19). We Christians are deluded, you see. We’re living in a dream world and it would be far better to live in the real one. If there’s nothing for us after death, if we only perish, then we’re better off living for whatever pleasure we can find here and now. Then all the self-denial and sacrifice that the gospel calls for is a wasted investment. People should either laugh at us or pity us according to their taste, because we are fools. We’ve been fooled into suffering for Christ’s sake and we’ll have nothing to show for it in the end. Paul, ever the realist, draws the appropriate conclusion, “If the dead are not raised, `Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (v. 32).
So there they are. Six consequences if Christ’s resurrection isn’t true: The apostles’ preaching is useless. Our faith is empty and futile. The apostles are false witnesses so we know nothing about God. We are still in our sins. Those who have died in Christ are lost. We Christians are a pathetic bunch of fools.
But Christ Has Indeed Been Raised!
But suppose the opposite again. What if the resurrection is true? It is! Here is the Easter truth: “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (v. 20). And if Christ Jesus has been raised, then all these other things follow. Then our faith in him isn’t useless. It’s the key to everything. Then the apostles haven’t misrepresented God. Their message about him in the New Testament is the truth. Then we’re not in our sins any longer. They’ve been forgiven in Jesus and by the same power that raised him from the dead, we can be set free from them. Then those who have fallen asleep in him are not lost but are with him now in our Father’s house and will come again with him some day when he raises everyone from death. Then we Christians are not of all people most to be pitied but of all people most to be envied because we have the joy, the secret of eternal life.
Did I say envied? No, not envied, but imitated. For you too, whoever you are, can join us. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ who died for your sins and rose again from the dead. Accept this Easter truth and you too can have the life that is found only in him!